Behind the Screen – Chapter 9: Playing against Horror

Chapter 9...OF HORROR!A fair while ago, Chaosium put up a Kickstarter for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, which I (of course) signed up for, spending the most amount of money before or since then on any Kickstarter that I’d backed. The date I can get my hands on those goods is drawing closer; the materials have been printed and shipped to the relevant distribution centres around the world and the boat arrived here in Australia at the end of March. With time to clear Customs and for other sorting and shipping, I hope to receive the books (and all the other juicy bits) somewhere around mid-May. With this on my mind, I have been thinking a lot about the games I am going to run and what they contain, so I thought I would share my ideas on the subject of Horror within a role playing game and the complications that it brings, because it is truly trickier than one might suspect.


Tentacles of HorrorWhen one thinks of Horror, a role playing game does not immediately spring to mind. Normally one would associate Horror with movies, TV series’ and possibly books. The more common idea of a role playing game is something based around Fantasy, involving medieval weaponry, magic, dragons and Heroics (yes, it absolutely deserves a capital H). Even if it isn’t Fantasy, most role playing games are geared toward the PCs increasing in power over time to become something God-like. Call of Cthulhu doesn’t follow that line, in fact it deviates greatly. The PCs do not posses fantastical powers or abilities and will never even approach God-hood. It is generally considered a successful campaign if the world is saved from some horrific threat, and absolutely amazing if one or more PCs manage to escape with either the majority of their body parts or their sanity intact, because it is unlikely to be both. Horror can be integrated into almost any role playing system, but Call of Cthulhu does supports it the best with the Sanity mechanic present in the system. I say this because what I write in the following can be used for any system, though I might point more toward Call of Cthulhu, since that is what I intend to play, but I have used these same techniques in other systems, such as Pathfinder.


Before I start looking at Horror in a gaming session, I think we need to look at Horror itself, as a genre, and what one expects when hearing that term, because it can mean a number of different things to a number of different people. I’ll reference movies, because that is a medium where Horror is well established and examples of the many types can be found. I tend to look at Horror as encompassing three main categories; Shock, Jump and Atmospheric.

    • Shock Horror typically involves subjecting the person to copious amount of horrific and shocking elements, such as excessive gore or atrocious actions performed by individuals. Some examples of this type would the movies Cannibal Holocaust and The Flowers of Flesh and Blood. This type induces fear through revulsion. Several of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories tended towards this style, not in the sense of describing obscene amounts of gore, but by there being some ultimate horrible revelation at the end of the story.
    • Jump Horror is the style where the person is scared through a sudden upsetting or surprising event, like a monster popping out from around a corner when one was not expected. I would think it extremely hard to portray a jump scare in any sort of written work, and it loses some of it’s vigour if only heard. A good jump scare needs some form of visual aspect accompanied by a sudden, and often loud, audio element. Jump style obviously terrifies through the jumps, but those moments of fear are very short. The rest of the fear is built through tension, being unaware of when the next jump will come and what form it will take. A good example of this style will keep you guessing on when these moments will happen. A great example is the Five Nights at Freddy’s video game series, and the Insidious series of movies.
    • Atmospheric Horror is, for me, the best style. I am not a particular fan of either of the other styles, but I love Atmospheric Horror. It is the style where small elements are used to increase tension and fear throughout an extended process. I believe it is the most difficult to produce, because it relies on the person experiencing it to be a certain way, and if they are not, then it falls flat and is not scary. Atmospheric Horror tends to place an idea in the head of the person and then subtly turn that idea into a greater sense of fear. If the person has a good imagination, they will generally feed that idea themselves as well, making it even bigger. The singular perfect example is The Blair Witch Project, a horror film shot in a very distinct style that came out in 1999. From my experience, people either loved it or hated it, there was very little middle ground. I was and still am in the Love group, I thought the film was amazing and pulled off Atmospheric Horror expertly.

I believe Atmospheric Horror is the best element to use in creating a good Horror game, though not the easiest. But that is not to say you can’t involve the other two styles in a mainly Atmospheric game to enhance the situation where necessary. The description of a particularly spooky swamp, abounding with mist, gently swaying reeds and the ominous sound of a wolf howl in the distance can be improved by adding a freshly eviscerated deer at the edge of a still pool, blood slowly mingling with the black water.


Atmospheric horror


When you go to prepare a horror adventure or campaign, there are some things to keep in mind. Here is a list of elements to take into consideration, items to hopefully improve the experience for all involved;

  1. Know your players.
    • This is a bit subjective. If you are playing a game for a new group or a random group, such as at a convention or event, it really isn’t possible to know them. But in that respect, the location will detract from the atmosphere anyway, because you cannot control things like light, noise or effects. But if you are running a game for an established group you are well acquainted with, then being able to identify some of the things that could creep a player out is easier. In normal conversation, listen to things they say about real life experiences, movies they have watched or even dreams/nightmares they may have had. They might provide clues or elements to increase that horror level.

  2. Avoid telling the players how the PCs feel.
    • One may be tempted to have a line such as “The monstrosity hauls itself out of the titanic depths, water cascading from its colossal form as it swivels its piercing gaze towards the Investigators. You are all absolutely terrified”, but that may not be the case, dependent on characters. The natural reaction would most likely be terror, but within the game things can roll out differently. CoC has the sanity mechanic where one must roll to see if they lose sanity, so if an investigator rolls and passes, one could assume that that investigator is not terrified. But if they fail, and within the scope of rules of the system, then you may describe the terror they feel, especially if it fits in with a mental break of some sort, such as collapsing into a gibbering heap, fleeing in blind panic or going completely catatonic. Combining this with the following entry is a particularly good method. Telling the players little, implying other things and letting the players build the rest within their own head can create more tension and horror than might be possible otherwise.

  3. Use description wisely.
    • Setting the atmosphere, I think, relies heavily on setting the scene. Take, for example, the entrance to a tunnel. It could be described as “The road disappears into a tunnel in the side of a hill, it is pitch black inside”, but that is very lacklustre, a sparse description at best. Something more like “Gravel crunches under the tyres of your vehicle as you stop. The mouth of the tunnel yawns out of the hillside, stuffed with a darkness so deep it seems like your torches struggle to piece through. A large willow tree to the left of the tunnel sways gently in the wind, the hanging branches scraping against the rough stonework. From deep inside, the slow drip of water can he heard, casting a faint echo” will help the players feel more in the game. The more immersive an experience, the easier fear is generated.
    • But that is not to say everything needs a high level of description, some things need less. When a large beastie does sally forth, one can just give impressions, ideas or comparisons rather than outright description. “The monster stood 4 metres tall, glistening with slime. Oversized arms, tipped with wicked black claws hung limply as it crashed into the house, sending shattered boards and fragments of glass into the air”, that isn’t a bad description, and can well be used in a game, but something more like “Out of the darkness a massive creature stumbled, crashing into the house with an almighty thud, scattering ruined boards and shards of glass in all directions. The dim rays of the moon reflected off of sickly, wet skin and long dark claws”. Relatively the same amount of information is given, but in a much more subtle way in the second, leaving ample room for the players to imagine the rest. Letting the players fill in the blanks can increase that fear level greatly, as their imagination will populate the monster with things that scare them, rather than being given an image that may or may not cause fear. Hinting at insectile elements could cause one person to imagine something spider-ish, whereas another player with the same description may see something like a fly or bee, and be scared in turn.

  4. Allow natural progression, don’t railroad.
    • As I’ve mentioned before in previous a Behind the Screen article or two, railroading is forcing the PCs to go where you want and to do what you want, rather than allowing the players to move the PCs in a more natural fashion. Horror is not nearly as effective when it is shoved in your face, or when you are expecting it, so avoid doing that with your group. Set up situations where horrific revelations may occur, or glimpses of monstrosities may be seen. Listen to the players as they talk amongst themselves, and if you identify a part where they expect a creature to be, when they arrive, the creature is nowhere to be seen, making them more tense because now they might be expecting it around every corner, but not knowing for sure. Forcing the players towards a particular house among several is surely going to tip them off that something lurks within, but allowing the players to find that house on their own, not knowing about the terror inside, thinking of it as only another average house, will make it all the more scary. Or, adversely, the players may approach every house with the thought that something horrible lies within, and every time they find just a regular house that tension builds more and more.

  5. More immersion.
    • I stated earlier how good description of a scene can help increase immersion, but there are other ways beyond that. Handouts, in certain games, can help greatly. I will be running an organised play campaign from Cult of Chaos shortly, and in it are several handouts, one being a hand written poem and the other a picture drawn by a young child. I plan to copy these out by hand, rather than just handing the players a photo-copied piece of paper. I will also try and replicate the newspaper clippings, though I don’t know how well I will go with that. For previous games, I have printed telegrams on very thin paper, to emulate the flimsy copy one would have received in real life.
    • I’ve read in several places that music shouldn’t be used in horror games, but I disagree with this. Use of the correct music, and at the correct times, can heighten the experience a lot. If the PCs enter a speak-easy, then having some jazz tootling on in the background will bring that speak-easy more alive, along with a detailed description. There are several albums I’ve seen around that are designed as ambient music for horror situations, along with music for various other scenes. Sound effects can also help, but are trickier to organise. There are programs that can aid with sound management, Syrinscape is one that comes to mind, specifically designed for the purpose of putting music and sound effects into role playing games of many different genres.
    • It is not always possible, but if you can change the lighting, that can have an impact. Having a dark room with a central lit table, perhaps even with candles, will isolate the players from the greater world and draw them more into the game. If all external sound can be excluded, all the better.

  6. The Art of the Tell.
    • As a GM, you are not just a person who controls the baddies and knows the rules, you are the Purveyor of the Narrative. World of Darkness calls its GMs ‘Story Tellers’. Not only do you have to hold everything together, know everything, control the group and eat all the best snacks, but you also have to weave an interesting, compelling, intricate and, in this case, pants-wettingly-terrifying story. And how you go about that can really have an effect on how well it all goes down.
    • You are expressing the story by the medium of voice, with the help of physical material, so the voice needs to be the star. That doesn’t mean you need to have pipes like James Earl Jones, but it does mean you need to change elements of your voice at different times to suit the scene. Volume is very useful; you might reduce to hushed tones when the PCs are in an ancient ruin, or when a particular nasty monster turns up, you may roar loudly. Pitch, tone, speed and others aspects can all be manipulated to suit the scene, create voices for NPCs and portray specific elements within the game.
    • Body movements and facial expressions can also be utilised to accentuate the experience. A well placed grimace or evil smile when the PCs are dealing with NPCs will bring them further in, or describing the jerky movements of a puppet brought to life while making those same movements can help. Even getting up and walking around the table looking down on the players, perhaps while describing a menacing situation, to increase that feeling of intimidation.
    • The language you use is also an important factor when telling the story. It is all very well to use those esoteric terms (see what I did there?) while telling the story, but not everyone will know what they all mean. Some people might just be looking up ‘esoteric’ right now. This is somewhat dependent on the group you play with, as some will know what you are talking about, some will gather the meaning through how it is used and others will just flat out not know. It also depends on what time period the game is set, and how much you want to keep it authentic. I run my Call of Cthulhu in the 1920s, or thereabouts, so I will keep the language to something that more suits that time period, mainly when it is NPCs who are talking. There may be times when an NPC will use a word that has fallen out of fashion for now, but I know my regular group understands what I say. A note on swearing: In general, don’t. When used as part of a description or similar, it brings the tone down and is unnecessary, where better words that enhance the sentence can be used. It is feasible to use in NPC dialogue, but once again, time period would define what swearing was used. Words used in the 1920s differ from those used now.


The two most important points that are present in that list, and that everything should conform to, even if it is done in a different manner, is to put your players in an immersive experience, and to give them ample opportunity to scare themselves. Obviously, this is not always as attainable as we would like, due to various restrictions, but we do the best we can and hope to give an enjoyable experience to everyone who plays.

Lastly, something you absolutely must consider before you sit down with a group for a horror-based game, especially with those you have never played with before.  Horror (ironically) tends to include horrific subject matter.  While some of us enjoy a good fright, certain situations may leave certain individuals feeling uncomfortable rather than frightened.  Before launching into your one shot game or ongoing campaign it’s usually best to list the subjects your story MAY involve (You don’t want to give everything away) and make sure that everyone at the table understands and agrees.

Of course it’s not a guarantee that something in your game might not arise at a later point and upset a player in a negative way.  The best you can do in this situation is to apologize, make a note (so it doesn’t occur again) and find a way to quickly move beyond the in-game situation (perhaps the character is so revolted they leave the area to empty the contents of their stomach, allowing the player to also take a short break).

While those suffering from arachnophobia might not enjoy your detailed description of an army of spiders crawling over their character, it’s typically more ‘mature’ and ‘disturbed’ themes that can upset people.  Use them sparingly, cautiously and again make sure you’ve got the tick from everyone before proceeding.

Horror is a wonderful theme and can add spice to any role-playing game system.  Tell us some of your most horrific moments in role-playing in the comments below.




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  1. Terry F
    April 23, 2016 | Reply
    • April 23, 2016 | Reply

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